Novel intervention looks to improve timeliness, equity of head and neck cancer care delivery

Many factors go into surviving cancer.

Hollings Cancer Center researcher Evan Graboyes, M.D., specializes in head and neck cancer, a disease with poor survival prospects despite intense therapy with combinations of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. While head and neck cancer only accounts for 4% of all cancer cases each year in the US, it has a high mortality rate. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 14,000 patients died from this disease in the U.S. in 2019.

Overall, only 50% of head and neck cancer patients are alive at five years. Unfortunately, the mortality rate is even worse for African American head and neck cancer patients. That’s why researchers are looking for new strategies to improve patient survival and decrease racial disparities in outcomes for these patients.

Graboyes and MUSC Hollings Cancer Center researchersChanita Hughes-Halbert, Ph.D., Katherine Sterba, Ph.D., Hong Li, Ph.D., andGraham Warren, M.D., Ph.D., have teamed up to develop and test a novel intervention to improve the timeliness, equity and quality of head and neck cancer care delivery, which they think might one day be the key to improving survival for these patients.

Funded by a $1.3 million 5-year grant from the National Cancer Institute, their study-Improving the Timeliness and Equity of Adjuvant Therapy Following Surgery for Head and Neck Cancer-started in September 2019 and built upon important research funded by grants from Hollings Cancer Center.

Graboyes explained that for patients with advanced head and neck cancer who are treated with surgery, national guidelines recommend that postoperative radiation therapy should start within six weeks of surgery.

“However, we know from our research that despite national guidelines, over half of the patients nationally don’t get radiation started in a timely fashion. Patients who have delays with radiation are more likely to die and have their cancer recur,” he said. “We are trying to find new ways to deliver timely head and neck cancer care. It’s an appealing way to help improve survival for this group.”

Innovative approach

The study is designed in three parts. The first part aims to identify the underlying reasons for why delays starting postoperative radiation are so common for this patient population. The researchers then developed a new multilevel health care delivery intervention called NDURE (Navigation for Disparities and Untimely Radiation thErapy), that specifically targets the barriers that lead to delays.

In the second part of the grant, the researchers will pilot the NDURE intervention in a small group of patients to make sure that it’s feasible and acceptable and refine the intervention based on participant feedback. In the third and final part of the study, they will compare NDURE to standard care in a randomized controlled trial to see whether NDURE is effective at decreasing treatment delays.

“This study interests me because it is clinically important. To help patients with head and neck cancer live longer, you don’t need to invent a new drug. All you need to do is get them the treatment they’re supposed to be getting. If we can find a way to deliver timely guideline-recommended care, it could have such a large impact on their survival,” he said

“To help patients with head and neck cancer live longer, you don’t need to invent a new drug. All you need to do is get them the treatment they’re supposed to be getting. If we can find a way to deliver timely guideline-recommended care, it could have such a large impact on their survival.”

-Dr. Evan Graboyes

“It’s also a scientifically important study. Head and neck cancer treated with surgery followed by radiation is a great model system for us to understand how we deliver cancer care. Right now, we spend a lot of time and effort helping get people in to initiate cancer care. However, we understand a lot less about how cancer patients move through complicated treatment plans.”

Graboyes said South Carolina is primarily a rural state with some geographic barriers that present obstacles for patients to navigate. “Many of the patients will have surgery at a regional center like MUSC, then because radiation is five days a week for six weeks, they’ll get radiation at a different facility closer to where they live. We have to coordinate cancer care across health care systems, which presents some barriers that can lead to treatment delays.”

Graboyes emphasized that head and neck cancer is a major concern for the state of South Carolina and Hollings Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute-Designated Cancer Center. The two major causes of head and neck cancer are smoking and human papillomavirus (HPV). The state’s population is affected by both, due to high rates of tobacco use and very low rates of HPV vaccination.

“As a result, Hollings has recognized this issue and has really invested a lot in the clinical enterprise of head and neck cancer because it’s such a problem in South Carolina.”

Hollings also has a strong cancer control program dedicated to reducing issues of health disparities and equity in the state, he explained.

“We think that NDURE, our intervention targeting the multilevel barriers to timely head and neck postoperative radiation, will be an effective way to help improve timely cancer care delivery for these patients, which will lead to higher rates of survival and low recurrence and decrease racial disparities and outcomes. That’s very exciting to our team.”

Did you know?

About 70% of cancers in the oropharynx (which includes the tonsils, soft palate and base of the tongue) are linked to HPV.

Dedicated to the mission of raising HPV vaccination rates for teens and young adults, Hollings Cancer Center has initiated a $700,000 three-year project. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends speaking with a doctor about the HPV vaccination. The HPV vaccine can prevent new infections with the types of HPV that most often cause oropharyngeal and other cancers.

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